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Staying Fit on The Road
Building muscle with minimal effort, the longevity jet lag protocol, and remembering founding principles.
As Covid restrictions loosen up globally and the world returns to its usual hum, many of us are beginning to travel again. As you read this, I’m adventuring somewhere along the coast of Southern France enjoying the first trip outside of my home country of Canada that I’ve had in quite some time. Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, the hiatus has the same disrupting impact on your usual routine.
If you’re anything like me, the impending disruption stirs up anxious concerns about losing muscle, putting on fat, or otherwise being negatively impacted or digressing in progress as a result of being thrown into a different environment. Since telling myself to CTFO (chill the f*k out) rarely has the calming and reassuring effect I’m looking for, I decided to dig in and figure out what practical and effective tactics can help maintain a lifestyle geared towards longevity while we’re on the road or otherwise dislodged from our usual routine.
Muscle Made Easy
“Exercise probably is the best drug we have… I don’t believe we will ever be able to develop a drug that is that remarkable. It is simply unbelievable what it can do.” — Peter Attia
If you have access to a hotel gym, fantastic. But if not, that’s okay. You can create a workout that packs a punch with nothing except your body and some space to move around in. Either way, the structure of the exercise protocol detailed below will be valuable regardless of the equipment you have at your disposal.
Before getting into recommendations of specific movements that can help you stay fit on the road, it’s crucial to remember two founding principles: MED and The 80/20 Rule.
Regardless of the type of travel you’re engaging in, I’m making the assumption that time is limited. With that in mind, I’d be remiss to disregard the principles (MED and 80/20) before diving into the strategies (set and rep structure) and tactics (specific exercises).
Minimum Effective Dose
The minimum effective dose (MED) is the minimum amount of work you need to perform to achieve the desired result. If the kettle is boiling, you’re not making the water any hotter by leaving it on. You’re just evaporating more water. We want to find the minimum work required to maintain and even increase muscle mass.
The 80/20 Rule
This universal principle states that 80% of the results are derived from 20% of the causes. Applied to exercise, this means that a small handful of movements will yield the vast majority of our results. The other 80% of exercises are just spinning our tires. They may bring us small, incremental gains but are more or less a waste of time when we could be focusing on a few movements that will drive massive results. Our focus will be to integrate effective movements that drive oversized results in short periods of time.
The key to gaining or maintaining muscle is to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the driving force behind our body’s adaptation to exercise and nutrition. By applying founding principles such as the MED, we can ask ourselves better questions. In this case, what’s the minimal amount of work required to increase MPS? Although the answer to this question will be individualized, depending on the individual’s training status (trained vs. untrained) and other factors, we can apply scientifically validated strategies to increase MPS.
For most people, five sets per muscle group per week will be enough to maintain muscle whereas 10 to 15 sets will be required to improve muscle mass (minute 1:08:45). The consistency of those sets will depend on your goals.
If you want to improve explosiveness and speed, moving moderately heavy weights quickly (60-75% of your one-repetition maximum) is the sweet spot. If you’re training for strength, isolating muscles and contracting them hard should be your focus. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using bodyweight, weights, or bands. The same training principles apply.
In practice, the difference is that someone training for explosiveness will stop the exercise when they can no longer exert high levels of power at high speeds, whereas one training for strength will push through reps as the set progresses even when the cadence of the movement begins to slow down.
With these principles in mind, we can apply The 80/20 Principle and begin selecting exercises to develop a very minimalistic exercise routine. We’re even going to be ambitious and try to gain muscle. By applying the MED as well, we’ll find the smallest number of exercises that covers all of our muscle groups. These are the groupings and exercises that made the most sense to me but feel free to personalize them. To design your workout, just pick one movement from each muscle group.
Chest and Triceps
You can modify by putting your knees on the ground or substituting with a dip off the end of your bed or a bench
Back and Biceps
Shoulders and core
Once you’ve picked an exercise from each of the muscle groups above then select the appropriate repetition structure below based on your goals:
Speed and Explosiveness: 4 sets x 60-75% (stop when you start to slow down)
Strength: 4 sets x 90-95% (stop within a few reps of failure, push through when you begin to slow down)
Repeat your personalized workout three days per week with adequate spacing to ensure recovery. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday work best for most people. If you’re feeling energetic, finish off with some burpees or focused core movements such as reverse or bicycle crunches.
This protocol will ensure you maintain and likely even increase muscle mass with minimal effort while on vacation or otherwise dislodged from your usual routine. In addition, try to work in a few minutes of stretching or yoga each day to stay flexible and mobile. As your mode of transportation, walk or run everywhere you go. On top of the added exercise, it’s one of the best ways to discover and explore a new city.
If this was information overload and you just want to be able to exercise without thought, download the Nike Training Club app, filter workouts for strength and no equipment required, and squeeze in at least three of those per week. Now you have no excuse not to stay active next time you’re on vacation!
Back to the Basics
On top of integrating some sort of exercise routine a few days a week, stretching or doing yoga, and being physically active through walking, don’t forget to come back to the basics. Sleep and nutrition should remain priorities year-round.
I’m certainly not saying you can’t go out or enjoy a good meal. There’s no point in living longer if you can’t enjoy the finer things in life! However, pick and choose your places to enjoy and try to be consistent elsewhere. When possible, buy groceries over eating out to retain better control over your diet and ensure you’re sleeping for at least seven hours per night.
Circling back to spurring muscle protein synthesis (MPS), studies have shown that it’s critical to ensure adequate protein intake of one gram per pound of bodyweight1. Of particular importance to MPS is the amino acid leucine which can be obtained through leucine-rich sources such as dairy, eggs, meats, and poultry. Not only will protein help increase MPS, but it also has a satiating impact which will leave you more full after a meal.
The Longevity Jet Lag Protocol
Everyone has a different proclivity to suffer from jet lag, however, it’s common that as you age you will feel the impacts more. Although spoken about as one influence, jet lag has two distinctive elements, travel fatigue and time zone jet lag, both of which contribute to its negative impacts. Travel fatigue is exhaustion experienced as a result of always needing to be “on alert” while you travel. Time zone jet lag is the inability of our internal clock to sync with the local patterns of sunlight and darkness.
From an evolutionary lens, this makes sense. We weren’t designed to be picked up and dropped off in a region where the sun is rising and setting at a later or earlier time than we had grown accustomed to. I won’t go into jet lag’s detrimental impacts on longevity here, particularly those associated with eastward travel, but if you’re interested pick up this podcast at minute 21:00.
Here’s the step-by-step protocol for minimizing the damaging impacts of jet lag:
1) Determine your temperature minimum.
Your temperature minimum is the point in every 24-hour cycle where your temperature is lowest. The actual temperature is irrelevant, but the time at which you reach your temperature minimum is important. Determine this reference point by analyzing your last 3–5 wake-up times. That is, the time you got out of bed and started on with your day (NOT when your alarm clock went off).
Take the average of these wake-up times and then deduct 1.5–2 hours from that time. So, if your average wake-up is 7 am, your temperature minimum is around 5 am. Remember this reference point. Your temperature minimum is the absolute reference point for shifting your circadian clock.
2) Determine if you’re flying east or west.
Since humans are better at forcing themselves to stay alert for longer rather than fall asleep on command, traveling west is easier to adapt to since you just have to force yourself to stay awake for a few hours longer due to the sunlight hours gained. Conversely, traveling east will always be more difficult as you’re losing sunlight hours and need to fall asleep earlier to accommodate.
Flying north or south will induce travel fatigue, but not time zone jet lag since your internal clock is not being displaced from the timing of light and dark that your body is accustomed to.
3) Expose your eyes to bright light.
By exposing your eyes to bright light at a certain time of day relative to your temperature minimum, you can effectively shift your internal clock. Within 30 minutes of waking up, the time of which will depend on the direction you’re traveling, expose your eyes to sunlight for 2–10 minutes.
If you can’t get it from sunlight, which is the ideal substrate, then use a light pad (Google “LED drawing pad 930 lux”). Do not try to get it from a phone or screen because it won’t be sufficiently bright. Andrew Huberman, who talked about this protocol on The Tim Ferriss Show, just sets the light pad at his desk in the morning while he works when he doesn’t have access to natural sunlight. As a rule of thumb, the light you're exposing your eyes to is too bright if you have an urge to close them.
In the 2–3 days before you leave, expose your eyes to bright light within the hour or two before your temperature minimum. If you usually wake up at 7 am, then your temperature minimum is at 5 am. Viewing bright light between 3–4 am will start to shift your clock forward.
In the 2–3 days before you leave, expose your eyes to bright light within the hour or two after your temperature minimum. If you usually wake up at 7 am, then your temperature minimum is at 5 am. Viewing bright light between 6–7 am. will start to shift your clock backward.
If you’re an audio person, this is explained at minute 33:10 of this podcast.
4) Go outside in the evening.
In addition to viewing sunlight outdoors in the morning, going outside in the late afternoon or evening as the sun is approaching a low solar angle will help signal to your brain that it’s evening.
5) Consider exercise and eating.
In addition to light exposure, exercising and eating anytime within the 4 hours of your temperature minimum (before if traveling east and after if traveling west) can also aid in helping adjust your circadian clock to the time zone you’re about to enter.
“That temperature minimum is worth knowing because if you’re traveling, for instance, to Europe, what you can do is, in the two or three days before, you can set your alarm, wake up around your temperature minimum, maybe an hour before, turn on some bright lights in your home, so you get bright light exposure, and you will start to shift your clock forward. That nine-hour jump can be accomplished in about two days if you do this correctly. And the reverse is also true. You could shift your clock earlier, if you like.
When you land in Europe, you have to be cognizant of what your clock is back home. Remember your temperature minimum. It’s much more important than where you are in your new environment. That temperature minimum is an anchor point. Remember, light viewed in the hour or two before that temperature minimum will make you want to go to sleep later and wake up later. Light viewed after that temperature minimum will make you want to go to sleep earlier, and wake up earlier.”
How does this work?
By shifting our wake-up time we also shift our temperature minimum since it occurs roughly two hours before we arise. Viewing light at a certain time of day, as well as exercise and meal timing, signals to our brains that it’s time to be awake. This is an effective modality to shift our circadian clock as evolutionarily, periods of light and dark signaled when we should be awake.
The reason that temperature minimum is our reference point is that it is the effector (minute 31:00). Temperature is the signal that allows all of the different types of cells and tissues in our body to be on the same schedule. They’re all performing different functions at different rates and temperature signals are what allow all of our cells to have a consistent understanding of their environment.
Given my lack of a neuroscience degree, I found parts of this protocol a little bit confusing. I certainly won’t pretend to understand the biology behind circadian clock shifting mechanisms.
If you’re someone who doesn’t struggle with jet lag then I don’t think you have too much to worry about. If you do feel the impacts of changing time zones, give this protocol a try. It’s explained in full effect by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman between minutes 31:00 to 38:00 of this podcast.
Just Have Fun
“The point of all this is that consistency is fundamental… You could have any diet. You could have any training system. If you’re consistent, you’re going to see results” — Layne Norton
At the end of the day, a two-week hiatus from your regular routine of exercise and sleep and a break in your normal dietary habits will not make or break you. What matters the most is your overall level of consistency. If you feel like you need two weeks per year that are dialed back from your regular longevity-focused lifestyle, that’s okay. Being consistent day in and day out for the remaining 50 weeks is what will drive the bulk of your outcomes.
Taking a vacation is a great time to relax and reset but I advise trying to maintain some level, even if it’s scaled back from your usual routine, of commitment to sleep, nutrition, and exercise. The exercise protocol detailed above takes very little time out of your week and you’ll feel better mentally and physically as a result.
Enjoy your trip, make lasting memories, adventure with loved ones, sleep and eat well, and engage your muscles a few times per week. You’ll be back to your regular routine before you know it!
Next week we’re doing a deep dive into the most potent lifespan extension tool available: Zone 2 aerobic training. Stay tuned.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Instagram or by hitting reply to this email.
The specific number of grams remains a controversial topic, but for the average person (non-athlete), one gram per pound of bodyweight appears to be an adequate and safe intake.